10 Years Later: Our 20 Favorite Graphic Novels From First Second Books

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10 Years Later: Our 20 Favorite Graphic Novels From First Second Books

Celebrating its 10th birthday this month, First Second Books has proven itself an instrumental force in the industry. Ensuring that comic books are constantly expanding to new audiences and venues outside the direct market, the publisher has continually inspired Paste to devote wells of digital ink to its existing works as well as itsupcomingslate. The graphic novel branch of Roaring Brook Press underneath the monumental umbrella of textbook publisher Macmillan, First Second not only addresses an underserved adolescent readership, but creates provocative and unconventional comics for any and every comic lover.

From Farel Dalrymple’s post-apocalyptic epic, The Wrenchies, to the real-life biological science of Primates to Pénélope Bagieu’s humanizing rom-com adventures in Exquisite Corpse, First Second has stewarded a defining sample of what makes comic books amazing today. It’s no coincidence that current National Ambassador for Young People Gene Luen Yang has done the bulk of his work under the imprint—both carry the same mission to transport comics over whatever boundaries may exist to engage the larger audience they deserve.

Here are 20 of our favorite graphic novels released by First Second.

American Born Chinese

Writer/Artist: Gene Luen Yang
Year Released: 2006

First Second didn't have to wait long to release its first critical bombshell. American Born Chinese stands as a microcosm of the qualities that permeate FS's line: it's educational, optimistic and obsessively well-crafted. Gene Luen Yang offers a triptych of stories featuring the Monkey King from the Journey to the West folktale, a son of Chinese immigrants adapting to a white neighborhood and a white adolescent embarrassed by his Chinese cousin. These seemingly separate tales twine together for an experience that reinforces the values of heritage, pride and respect. The literary community embraced the comic like few comics have been praised, honoring it with a Michael L. Printz Award and National Book Award finalist nomination. Yang is now a National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, and with books like this under his belt, there's no question how he got there. Sean Edgar

Andre the Giant: Life and Legend

Writer/Artist: Box Brown
Year Released: 2014

Retrofit publisher and wrestling fanatic Box Brown could find no project more fitting than Andre the Giant: Life and Legend. Brown excels in illustrating huge, sweeping concepts with little hand-holding—his panels show, never tell, and always engage. Andrew the Giant—a French farmboy turned 500-pound-plus wrestling sensation—was a huge multimedia figure who said little, but exuded a gentle disposition to contrast against his hulking presence. Brown neither lauds nor defames Andre and his antics; the heel devastated hotel rooms and bars while picking up almost every tab he came across. Rendered in Brown's looping, minimal style, Andre the Giant: Life and Legend is an emotional bodyslam. Sean Edgar

Anya's Ghost

Writer/Artist: Vera Brosgol
Year Released: 2011

Anya's Ghost still stands out as one of the best things First Second has ever published, even more so because it wasn't hugely heralded ahead of time. Vera Brosgol's weird, spooky ghost story reads like an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, both in its ability to capture the awkwardness of high school and in its intelligent plotting. It was a fairly early example of the publishing house's investment in authors who spoke to the concerns of young women without siloing themselves, and remains a stand-out. Hillary Brown

Battling Boy

Writer/Artist: Paul Pope
Year Released: 2013

Paul Pope's mélange of superhero legacy, outsized action, big freaking monsters and rad t-shirts is pop mythmaking at its finest. Acropolis is under siege, and its greatest hero is no more. A preteen demigod is the town's only hope. Pope is best known for grungy dystopias and Battling Boy is certainly cousin to Heavy Liquid and Batman: Year 100, but it's also a genuine coming-of-age story about living up to expectations. Rendered with Pope's wild ricochets of ink, Battling Boy makes paternal pressure seem more kickass than ever. Steve Foxe

Boxers & Saints

Writer/Artist: Gene Luen Yang
Year Released: 2013

Gene Luen Yang explores the intersection of war and religion through the eyes of two impassioned leaders in Boxers & Saints. The pair of graphic novels choreograph the steps leading up to The Boxer Rebellion, in which imperialistic European Christians collided with the Chinese at the turn of the 20th century. In Boxers, Little Bao invokes the spirit of China's first emperor to battle the Christians, with crippling moral concessions leading to his final destination in capitol Peking. Saints follows Four-Girl (eventually baptized as Vibiana) as she transforms from a hilarious hellion to a compassionate caretakers of orphans, inspired by frequent visions of Joan of Arc. Yang maintains a non-judgmental distance, showing how infinitely likable characters fall victim to a zero sum game of zealotry and greed. Sean Edgar

Dragons Beware!

Writer: Jorge Aguirre
Artist: Rafael Rosado
Year Released: 2015

Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado's double dose of D&D awesome—Giants Beware! and Dragons Beware!—offers one of the smartest, tightest takes on the genre for any age. These graphic novels follow Claudette, a spunky urchin with a famous knight father, as she traverses a magical bestiary of gargoyles, apple witches and mages. The authors' narrative also managers the impossible, incorporating thrilling action with non-violent solutions that prize understanding over violence. Rosado's art strikes a balance between old-school Disney legends like Bill Peet with the more whimsical expressionism of Chuck Jones, with striking archetypical heroes and their goofy kids bounding around the pages in aesthetic harmony. Every face is frozen in exaggerated bravado. Every pose perfectly captures the extremities of bravery, fear or any other emotional zenith. Though this will undoubtedly be a cartoon or animated movie within the next ten years, Dragons Beware! belongs on any young squire's shelf. Sean Edgar

Exquisite Corpse

Writer/Artist: Pénélope Bagieu
Year Released: 2015

Most mainstream superhero comics are allowed to aim no higher than unchallenging fun, but the literary world seems to expect something more from full-length graphic novels. French cartoonist Pénélope Bagieu scoffs at this pretentious notion in Exquisite Corpse, delivering a lighthearted, loose-lined love-gone-askew tale. Equal parts amusing and bemused, Exquisite Corpse flirts at depth from its dim-witted protagonist before ultimately deciding: Who needs it? Just laugh, turn the page and take another sip of wine. Steve Foxe

Human Body Theater

Writer/Artist: Maris Wicks
Year Released: 2015

When she's not coloring DC's hip-AF crossover smash Batgirl, cartoonist Maris Wicks lends her wide-grin humor and adorable, bold linework to almost singlehandedly filling the science-education comic niche. In Human Body Theater, a skeletal MC walks readers through a Broadway behind-the-curtain tour of the body's systems, donning new layers (organs, skin, miscellaneous viscera) as she goes. A former educator herself, Wicks bundles sound facts with offbeat, but accessible, laughs. Surgical fun for all ages. Steve Foxe

In Real Life

Writer: Cory Doctorow
Artist: Jen Wang
Year Released: 2014

Stories examining the dichotomy between the real world and the "lives" of digital avatars predate the MMORPG craze, but few introduce uncomfortable complications on par with In Real Life's intrusion of capitalism and class. Protagonist Anda escapes, like so many others, into an online fantasy world, but the poor Chinese kid she meets who farms in-game rewards to sell for real-world cash washes Anda's frivolous fun in shades of gray. On an unambiguously upbeat note, however, artist Jen Wang's vivid linework and imaginative designs will leave readers desperately wishing they could purchase the fictional fantasy game for themselves. Steve Foxe

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong

Writer: Prudence Shen
Artist: Faith Erin Hicks
Year Released: 2013

Faith Erin Hicks has done plenty of work for First Second, but this little charmer of a book about a high school robotics competition is one of my favorites. It's a little bit Breakfast Club, a little bit Scott Pilgrim and a little bit early Ryan Murphy. The plot zips along, due to Prudence Shen's funny and sharp writing, and Hicks gets to draw every variety of attractive slouch. Hillary Brown